December 7, 2005 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Cats Out of the Bag

Vermont and Quinnipiac Experience Life in New Leagues

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Mark Twain once wrote, "Of all God's creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the leash. That one is the cat."

Well, there was certainly no leash that could keep the Catamounts of the University of Vermont and the Bobcats of Quinnipiac University from staying put.

For the start of the 2005-2006 college hockey season, Hockey East welcomed Vermont from the ECAC, while the ECAC in turn welcomed newcomer Quinnipiac, a team that had enjoyed success first at the Division III level and then as a member of Atlantic Hockey.

Catamount (noun): short-tailed wildcat with usually tufted ears; valued for its fur
Bobcat (noun): a wildcat having spotted reddish-brown fur and tufted ears

And their similarities extend far beyond both having tufted ears.

So far this season, each team has been making the most of its new opportunity and has surprised skeptics and college hockey fans who thought each team would struggle with their respective transitions to more highly-regarded conferences.

Vermont is 11-3-1 and currently enjoys a No. 3 national ranking, more than holding its own against the competition in Hockey East, a league that includes perennial powerhouses Maine, Boston University, Boston College and New Hampshire.

"Hockey is hockey," said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, who won a national championship with Harvard in 1989. "Every night in the ECACHL was a very difficult night. It was like playoff hockey, each game, and it's the same thing in Hockey East. The difference is that, obviously, we're the new kids on the block. We're trying to learn how other teams play, and we're trying to learn as quickly as possible in the early going and adjust accordingly."

Quinnipiac also came out of the gates flying this season, winning eight of its first 10 games. But what will be remembered for a long time to come will be the Bobcats' inaugural weekend of ECAc play.

In their first-ever ECAC game, Quinnipiac defeated last year's tournament runner-up Harvard, 5-2, before a raucous crowd at the Hartford Civic Center. The following night, the Bobcats stunned Dartmouth in a 7-5 shootout to start their season 2-0 in league play. And for the Harvard game, look who the (Bob)cats dragged in — Gordie Howe, to drop the ceremonial first puck.

"We had over 5,000 [fans] at the Harvard game, and we had to turn people away for our Dartmouth game," recalled a proud Rand Pecknold, head coach of Quinnipiac. "Our guys played with a lot of emotion, a lot of intensity. Definitely against Harvard, we got great goaltending from Bud Fisher, and against Dartmouth the next night, we had some pretty opportunistic scoring. We finished our chances."

"He was very gracious," Pecknold continued, speaking about Howe, the six-time National Hockey League MVP nicknamed Mr. Hockey. "He spoke to both teams individually before the game. It was a real thrill for our players and even our stickboys, who range from ages 6 through 12, who were in the locker room. It was a pretty exciting day all around."

Already, for both Vermont and Quinnipiac, the switch to a new league has changed the perspective for the future. While Quinnipiac was dominant in Atlantic Hockey, the Bobcats look to rise to the same level of play in the ECAC. And while Vermont reached the ECAC final four last season, the Catamounts know it will take a greater effort to reach the Hockey East final four at the Fleet Center in March.

"I think the biggest challenge right now is to become very consistent," said Sneddon. "We've been fortunate to get some wins, but we may not have played to the best of our ability. We really want to focus on the consistency in our play, and hopefully that will lead into the second half of the season of all-league play. For the most part, it's been all positives. Our players are working extremely hard every day. It's a pleasure to coach this group of athletes. They're very dedicated and committed to the team goals first and foremost."

"We've got a solid team, a good team," said Pecknold, of his Quinnipiac Bobcats. "But, still, it's a building process. We still have a ways to go. We don't want to be a mediocre team in the ECAC. Eventually, we want to be a top team in the league, but it's going to take us a couple of years to get there."

The caliber of players on each team will certainly help each team get to where it wants to be. Each coach noted that an added benefit of playing in leagues that are more highly-regarded in terms of level of competition results in better exposure for prospective recruits.

"Perception-wise, it certainly has had a big impact on a lot of recruiting decisions for kids to come here," said Sneddon. "I think the biggest impact is exposure to television. We go from having a couple of games on television to 12 games this year. Recruits out there are more exposed to teams in Hockey East via television and radio."

Pecknold agreed, saying, "There are a lot more players interested in us, right out of the gate. Not just because of the ECAC, but also because of the new facility we're building — a 65 million dollar facility that could be close to 75 million when it's done. State of the art. It's really going to be a gem for college hockey."

Both Vermont and Quinnipiac have gone on to bigger and better things; it's only taken a few months. Nevertheless, the styles of play in their former leagues have helped them find success in their new ones.

"I think the one difference in Hockey East is that there are teams that are playing a much more up-tempo style, teams like Boston College, New Hampshire, Providence," said Sneddon. "They're certainly willing to open up the play, and it takes very good skill, very good speed. I think what we learned in the ECAC was to be very good defensively first and then build our game from there. Not that there aren't a lot of great offensive players in the ECAC, but in terms of systems, a lot of teams really focus on team defense. And that's helped us to be very good defensively in Hockey East now."

"Atlantic Hockey was a very good league," said Pecknold. "We're very thankful for them to kind of put us on the map. There were some really good teams in that league that challenged us to become better, and I think that's helped us as we've moved into the ECAC."

H.G. Wells once wrote, "The cat, which is a solitary beast, is single minded and goes its way alone."

Well in the cases of these Cats on ice, the players and coaches at Vermont and Quinnipiac have gone their way alone, to new conferences, to new arenas, and to new styles of play. Still, as Coach Sneddon said, "hockey is hockey," and the goals of the Catamounts and the Bobcats remain the same — to succeed and to rise to the top of their new conferences.

For now, their focus, their drive, and their energy have them off to a pretty good start. And there's no leash to hold them back.

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